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August 13, 2014

Fuzzy thinking on JD advantage jobs

by Dan Rodriguez

Matt Leichter weighs in thoughtfully on the “JD advantage jobs = lousy jobs” narrative. This is part of the swimming upstream various bloggers — usually, but not always, disaffected, anonymous posters — have been doing as part of a strategy of criticizing law schools for not enabling their students to pursue interesting, remunerative careers.

The wave of change impacting the legal profession and also the business sector has opened up opportunities for new law graduates. The business sector — especially, but not limited to, the technology sector — sees the utility of law-trained professionals in a world in which the intersection among law, business, and technology is increasingly useful. Indeed, the traditional silos between “legal services” and “business services” is dissolving in important ways. And while professional associations of lawyers, and perhaps state bars and the ABA, may be resistant to these changes, disruptive innovation is coming fast and furiously.

So why do Matt Leichter and others want to pound once again on the JD advantage drum?

First, he wants to draw the connection between unemployment rates and JD advantage positions, making the true, but banal, claim that when unemployment rises, “the proportion of graduates finding themselves in JD advantage positions is likely to increase.” Huh? No one is insisting that a law graduate will always or even mostly prefer a JD advantage to a JD required job. It surely depends upon the job. And everyone agrees (right?) that employment in a JD advantage position is preferable to unemployment. So what is so fuzzy about the proposition that, in this difficult job market, law graduates are pursuing eclectic professional opportunities. And why is it just labeled, derisively, “scrounging for work?”

Let’s look at the matter the other way ’round, that is, from the vantage point of employers. Presumably indebted law grads will have higher salary needs than, say, grads with a BA or even a post-graduate master’s degree. Why would non-traditional business sector employers then prefer law grads at this higher salary level if the JD degree was not truly an advantage? Is it the position of these critics that employers, too, are being scammed?

Here is the essential point: It is not NALP and not the law schools who are foisting law grads on unsuspecting employers by insisting that the JD degree is an advantage. It is the employers — and here, to be sure, I am focusing in particular on the business sector — who are seeing this educational path as providing value added. In the data described by Leichter, twenty percent are in “other business settings.” Would more precision in describing these jobs help? Well, surely yes. But the main point is that businesses are in fact hiring these grads and presumably across salary ranges. Different schools, different outcomes. Yes indeed. But I can report that Northwestern Law grads entering the consulting and business/technology fields are seeing salary outcomes that are quite remunerative indeed. And these fall squarely into this so-called “fuzzy” category.

Leichter insists that NALP should reshape the category to include only positions which offer “the graduate opportunities for exercising professional judgment while using their legal skills and knowledge.” Even making the heroic assumption that some smart cookies could come up with a useful measure of this, there remains very good reasons to suppose that employers are making this assessment in the real world by pursuing with alacrity law graduates. Yes, not all of these positions are lucrative and Leichter’s point that the salary at the 25th percentile of JD advantage jobs is not very large (still, the question is compared to what??). But trotting out the trope that the lion’s share of JD advantage jobs in the business sector are in fact positions which do not demand professional judgment or legal knowledge and thus we know that JD grads are “scrounging” and settling for these jobs (having been duped by NALP and deans) is not only tired, but is belied by the market.

Educated, data-driven debate by careful thinkers — and, to be clear, I certainly view Mr. Leichter as in this category, as someone with a valuable perspective and useful things to say on this subject — is necessary in this fuzzy climate. But let’s have this discussion in the context of a larger debate about the changing nature of legal services, the increasingly innovative work that law schools are doing, multidisciplinarity in the law-business-technology space, and economic judgments made by rational college graduates. More data and analysis in this realm would be a welcome relief to the scambloggers’ cranky refrain.

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